ROME -- Using stark images of sick and starving children, the Roman Catholic Church in Italy is beginning its annual fund-raising drive.
Today and tomorrow, Italian television will be flooded with 90-second commercials produced by the Milan-based advertising agency Saatchi and Saatchi.
The advertisements movingly convey the efforts of Catholic missionaries to relieve suffering around the world. What the advertising campaign, which costs $3.3 million, does not make clear is that almost half of the money raised by the church does not go to help Kosovar refugees, Guatemalan orphans or Somali single mothers but to pay the salaries of Italy's 38,000 priests.
And that does not please Italy's bishops.
"If we are forced to use 50 percent of our money to sustain the clergy, then obviously we have less money to spend on charity work at home and abroad," said Bishop Attilio Nicora, head of legal affairs for the Italian Conference of Bishops, which is responsible for fund raising.
"Italians are very generous, but we are having a hard time trying to give a more orderly orientation to their generosity."
Italians have been especially generous to Kosovar refugees. To date, they have donated more than $8 million to the government's Kosovo relief project, Rainbow. The Catholic relief organization Caritas has been so deluged with clothes, blankets and food that organizers had to appeal to donors to hold back for now.
Nicora said that while donations to Catholic Church charities had grown steadily over the last few years, contributions earmarked to sustain the clergy had declined just as steadily.
But some Catholics also detect a link between the drop in contributions to the clergy and the scandal surrounding Cardinal Michele Giordano, the archbishop of Naples, who is being investigated by state prosecutors on allegations of usury and extortion.
The Vatican has steadfastly supported Giordano, lodging a formal complaint with the Italian government after prosecutors raided his office in August, a step it viewed as a violation of church sovereignty. But in an unusual display of openness, the latest issue of Sovvenire, a church magazine distributed to those who donate to the clergy, published letters from angry readers.
"I have always contributed money to sustain the clergy," Gianfranco Pederzoll, a donor from the outskirts of Milan, wrote. "But I won't do it as long as Cardinal Giordano manages church funds to ends which we all know."
An unsigned editorial urged readers not to rush to judgment, but the fact that the magazine aired the grievances was in itself a sign of dismay within the church.
Nicora said he did not believe that there was a link between Giordano's legal troubles, which began last summer, and the drop in direct contributions to priests' salaries, which fell from $25 million in 1994 to $23.75 million in 1997 and $23 million last year. "Unfortunately we have witnessed a slow, progressive decline that is continuous, but not clamorous," he said.
In 1990, the Italian government instituted a system whereby taxpayers could earmark 0.8 percent of their taxes for a variety of charitable entities. Forty-six percent of Italy's 30 million taxpayers do check off that box, and most -- 82.5 percent -- choose to give it to the Catholic Church. Last year, the church took in more than $700 million from that source.
The church separately seeks donations for priests' salaries, soliciting year-end contributions that are rewarded by a small tax deduction. Only 159,000 Italians chose to make such a donation last year, and the $23 million collected covered only 5 percent of the cost of paying priests. The church had to cover the rest by using money originally intended to go to religious work and charity efforts at home and overseas.
"People prefer to give to local charities or causes that they feel emotionally," Nicora said. "Giving money over to a central institution based in Rome is harder."